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  • Writer's picturePeter DiSilvio

Law Enforcement on Social Media

One of the first legal jobs I had was as a prosecutor of juvenile delinquents. Every day cases would fall on my desk and I would have to do a cursory investigation into what was alleged and who it was alleged about. I would read the police report and any notes from the school or probation that had been included. Then, every single time, I would search for the alleged offender on social media to see if they had posted anything about their alleged infraction. Now, as a litigator, I routinely search for Plaintiff's on social media as well. You would be amazed how often someone, child or adult, plaintiff or defendant, will post something that completely undermines their case or credibility.

I am no trailblazer in this area. Attorneys and especially law enforcement have been using social media in new and creative ways since its birth to make their cases.

Why Do the Police Use Social Media?

As discussed in another recent post, one of the most damning mistakes a person can make is assuming that because something is on their "personal" or "private" social media account than law enforcement cannot use the contents thereat against you without a warrant to obtain a copy of it. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Police have used a confession posted on Facebook [1], Tweets implicating guilt [2], and the photos a minor posted on social media brandishing weapons in violation of his parole in order to get a warrant and secure an arrest [3].

Social media has been a powerful tool for police departments to interact with their communities and spread news but it is also helping secure conviction after conviction. With the almost flawless track record of social media based evidence being admitted, police would be foolish not to use social media.

How Do the Police Use Social Media?

88.1% of the law enforcement agencies use a form of social media site to help with police investigations [4]. The question isn't whether or not this is happening but how?

The first and most obvious form these investigations take is simply Googling the name of the person you are investigating. This is not surprising given how many people not informed in law enforcement do this when meeting a new person. A recent study has even found that many people look into the backgrounds of perspective romantic partners in this way [5].

Another technique, technically forbidden by most social media's terms of service, is using fake accounts to get access to a larger selection of a persons social media. For example, if you are looking into a single man you may pose as a woman of comparable age. Police have even begun undergoing trainings for how to create more convincing fake profiles for this purpose [6].

Law enforcement also uses powerful algorithmic tools to monitor situations, people, and locations. As one example, the city of Huntington Beach, Calif., used social media monitoring to inform its policing efforts during the U.S. Open of Surfing in 2015, an event that often leads to increased crime along with the large crowds it attracts. Using tools from GeoFeedia, a company that offers location-based analytics platforms, the Huntington Beach Police Department was able to monitor social media activity near parking garages in the area — places where teens often meet to drink or use drugs, occasionally leading to altercations over drug deals or other more serious crimes. The software monitored keywords like “gun,” “fight” and “shoot” to identify potential crimes and the city then sent patrol officers to investigate incidents [7].

The ACLU of California has also alleged to have received thousands of pages of public records revealing that law enforcement agencies across that state are secretly acquiring social media spying software that can sweep activists into a web of digital surveillance to monitor Black Lives Matter activists [8].

Combatting Abuse

Earlier this month the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and public policy institute generally considered liberal operating out of New York United School of Law, brought a lawsuit against the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department get get access to records on how police monitor people on social media [9].

There are also several cases pending alleging that Police Departments use of social media violates the Fourth Amendment rights of those they are investigating.

Despite these efforts, the case law at present suggests that individuals have no expectation of privacy for anything they post on social media so it is all fair game for Police and District Attorney's. Without legislative action and accompanying court cases it seems that social media monitoring is here to stay.


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